Social Protection to Promote Gender Equality: What’s Needed to Drive Change?

In the face of multiple crises—among them the COVID-19 pandemic, a rise in global food prices, and climate change-induced natural disasters—social protection systems have never been more vital. Through programs that provide cash, food or other in-kind support; income through public works programs; or subsidies and other benefits, governments and supporting partners can help mitigate short term risks of poverty and food insecurity for their populations. When designed well, social protection can also drive towards longer-term development outcomes, including gender equality and inclusion.

With this critical opportunity in mind, CGD, in collaboration with the Friedrich-Ebert-Stiftung (FES), the International Union Confederation (ITUC), the American Federation of Labor and Congress of Industrial Organizations (AFL-CIO), the World Bank’s #AccelerateEquality initiative, and Germany’s Federal Ministry of Economic Cooperation and Development (BMZ), recently hosted an event aimed at understanding how social protection can promote gender equality and more inclusive economic development. Here are our key takeaways:

1. The need for social protection is significant—especially among women

More than half of the global population (over 4 billion people) lack access to any form of social protection, leaving them vulnerable to risks associated with unemployment, disability, work accidents, and no access to childcare subsidies, parental leave, or pensions. Michal Rutkowski, Global Director for Social Protection and Jobs at the World Bank, referenced these coverage gaps—and explained that women are disproportionately affected. Women shoulder the lion’s share of unpaid labor left to individuals when social support is absent. This hinders their ability to enter and advance within the formal, paid workforce—a vicious cycle that excludes them from other social benefits. Social protection also systems rarely cover people working informally or without pay, and women disproportionately fall into both categories.

2. Addressing social protection gaps can drive gender equality—and wider development objectives.

If social protection programs are designed to account for the daily realities and needs of women and girls, they can help challenge discriminatory norms and power structures. Germany’s Minister for Economic Cooperation and Development, Svenja Schulze, referenced her government’s support for a social protection program in Sudan, through which mothers, pregnant women, and their children receive transfer payments for the first 1000 days of the life of the child. This money is used towards medication, hygiene items, and food. During COVID, Burkina Faso, Togo, and Argentina, among other countries, made efforts to target and benefit women through the expansion of social safety nets, in the form of unconditional cash transfers, funds directed to women workers as street vendors, and paid leave for women with dependent children.

Social protection programs must also be designed to address compounding vulnerabilities, such as those spurred by climate change. Not only do climate-related disasters fuel violence against women, but they also threaten livelihoods, health, and broader safety, exacerbating existing gender inequalities. Women are also “active and effective agents and promoters of adaptation and mitigation.”  With COP27 taking place next month, it will be critical for governments and partners to consider how social protection can mitigate gender-specific risks in the context of climate change. Designing social protection programs that can help create a global shield against climate risk, with women at the core of these programs, is imperative,and with COP27 taking place next month, now is a good time to consider this.

Finally, programs must incorporate the needs and perspectives of different groups of women, rather than viewing women as a monolith, to have the most impact. Women of diverse racial, ethnic, and class backgrounds, among other characteristics, must be given a voice in informing the social protection programs aimed at reaching and benefiting them.

3. To strengthen social protection, governments need to plan ahead—and follow through.

COVID-19 underscored the positioning of social protection as a critical part of crisis preparedness. Schulze asserted that “social protection helps people before, during, and after crises. It helps to reduce structural inequality and creates social security.” Rania al-Mashat, Egypt’s Minister of International Cooperation, provided the example of Takaful and Karama, whose presence ahead of the COVID-19 crisis helped Egypt’s population resist its worst socio-economic impacts. The program targets women-led households to promote “opportunity, resilience, and equity.” In particular, the use of digital payments eased expansion of the program during COVID and provided immediate support to people worst affected by food price fluctuations and other supply chain shocks. These digital payments also ensured that women directly received the transfers and could exercise autonomy in deciding how to use them. As the world recovers from the pandemic, it will be particularly important to maintain this momentum: strengthening access, enrollment, case management, and the payout systems of social protection programs.

4. Governments should continue to pursue partnerships with civil society and international institutions to expand and strengthen social protection.

 All speakers emphasized that collaboration was key to expanding and strengthening social protection programs, with Cathy Feingold, Director of AFL-CIO’s International Department, stating that in the United States, workers and corporations are aligned in their desire for strong social protection systems, which keep workers healthier, less stressed, and more productive. Schulze expressed her desire to further existing collaborations between the German government and the World Bank, International Labour Organization, UN agencies, and other bilateral partners to increase funding for social protection. Feingold, highlighted the need for a Global Social Protection Fund, emphasizing the need to shift the current model of financing social protection through increasing Official Development Assistance (ODA) and domestic resource mobilization, then allocating budgets towards programs that promote gender equality as well the UN’s wider Sustainable Development Goals.

Ultimately, governments of low- and middle-income (LMIC) countries will be the most important funders and implementers of social protection solutions to reach populations currently lacking access to these vital programs. Rutkowski and Schulze spoke to the importance of identifying different context-specific entry points to convince LMIC government officials of social protection’s value. For example, government officials in the Democratic Republic of Congo recognize the country’s wide-scale gender-based violence (GBV) as a critical human rights and development issue. This can be used as an entry way into introducing social protection plans that address GBV, and then seek to achieve other objectives down the line. (Evidence shows that cash transfers can limit the prevalence of GBV, especially intimate partner violence (IPV).) Similarly (even though India too has some history of intimate partner violence), a compelling entry point in the Indian context is social protection that will increase the share of women in the labor force. There is no one-size-fits-all approach, and collaboration with civil society organizations, which can communicate public needs to governments, are key in finding these context-specific entry points.

Recent concurrent crises have highlighted the importance of social protection programs to both prepare against and respond to economic shocks efficiently and effectively. If designed to be gender-responsive, social protection programs also can go a long way in reducing gender inequality.  But no one actor can achieve this goal alone. Governments, international organizations, and civil society must collaborate to develop at-scale, resilient social protection programs. In turn, they stand to reap social and economic benefits: on average, every euro contributed towards a social protection plan gives a euro and seventy back to the local economy. Sustaining and scaling programs that have been successful can be a great start towards the expansion of global social safety nets.


CGD blog posts reflect the views of the authors, drawing on prior research and experience in their areas of expertise. CGD is a nonpartisan, independent organization and does not take institutional positions.